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DISPUTED SURVEYS led to the first war between U.S. citizens. The year was 1835, 26 years before the Battle of Fort Sumter and the American Civil War. The conflict, known as the Toledo War, was over a strip of land on the Ohio/Michigan border containing this city. The Toledo War had its share of misunderstandings, mutual animosity, plenty of political posturing and a little bloodshed, thankfully, very little. It even gave rise to an opera.

The Toledo War’s origin is traceable to a geographic misunderstanding of the Great Lakes. An early map of the region created the Ordinance Line of 1787 defining the Northwest Territory, now the upper Midwestern states. However, it misplaced the southern end of Lake Michigan.


At left, the “Mitchell Map,” from the late 1700s. At right, the Northwest Territory, with corrected locations for Lakes Michigan and Erie.

Two surveys were completed in 1821, one commissioned by the State of Ohio (which had gained statehood in 1803), the other commissioned by the Territory of Michigan. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the surveys disagreed, and their disputed region of 468 square miles became known as the Toledo Strip.


The Toledo Strip, five to eight miles from north to south at the Michigan/Ohio border, contained the Lake Erie city of Toledo. Image by Drdpw.

Many people in the Toledo Strip thought of themselves as Ohioans, others, Michiganders. Both jurisdictions claimed sovereignty, set up governments, built roads and collected taxes.

When Michigan sought statehood in the early 1830s, realpolitik of the era arose. The U.S. Congress rejected the request, supposedly because of this disputed Toledo Strip. President Andrew Jackson also had a dog, er… jackass, er… donkey in the fight: His fledgling Democratic Party profited from the support of Ohio’s two Senators and 19 Representatives in the House. By contrast, Michigan Territory had only a single non-voting delegate.

Jackson asked Benjamin Butler, his Attorney General, for an opinion on the matter. Butler sided with Michigan, but realpolitik triumphed and the dispute continued.

The Toledo War began on April 26, 1835, with the Battle of Phillips Corners. Ohio-commissioned surveyors were accosted by Michigan militia. In the fog of war, maybe prisoners were taken, maybe shots were fired, maybe only into the air.

In June, Ohio passed a law preventing abduction of its citizens and backed it up with $300,000 (think $8.1 million in today’s money). The Territory of Michigan responded with $315,000 ($8.5 million today).


Robert Lucas, 1781 – 1853, Governor of the State of Ohio, 1832 – 1836.

Robert Lucas, Ohio Governor, said his militia numbered 10,000 volunteers. Soon the Michigan press dared “the Ohio million” to enter at their own risk and “welcomed them to hospitable graves.”

Both sides jostled each other, each taking the other to court over these injustices. Spies kept track of enemy actions. On July 15, blood was spilled, albeit only a little.

Monroe County (Michigan) Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood went to arrest Major Benjamin Stickney of Toledo (Michigan? Ohio?). Stickney and his three sons resisted, and Wood took the whole family into custody. In the scuffle, Two Stickney, the middle son?, stabbed Wood with a pen knife and then high-tailed it south into uncontested Ohio.


Two Stickney, an Ohioan who caused the only significant injury of the Toledo War.

Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s Territorial Governor, age 24, demanded that Stickney be extradited north for trial. Ohio’s Governor Lucas refused. Mason then wrote President Jackson and asked to get the U.S. Supreme Court involved.


Stevens T. Mason, 1811- 1843, Governor of Michigan Territory and its first State Governor.

The president preferred not to encourage any new judicial power. What’s more, at the urging of Ohio Congressmen (remember those 21 electoral votes), Jackson fired Mason as Michigan’s Territorial Governor and replaced him with John S. “Little Jack” Horner.

As might be expected, Horner was not popular. Michiganders pelted him with vegetables and burned him in effigy. Of course, it could have been worse and, in the October 1835 elections, they voted Mason back into office.

The U.S. Congress continued to act like jackasses er… donkeys on the matter. The first Michigander elected to the House of Representatives was seated as a non-voting delegate. Michigan’s first two U.S. Senators weren’t even acknowledged; they were made to sit as spectators in the Senate Gallery.


Andrew Jackson, 1767 – 1845, seventh U.S. President.

On June 1836, Jackson signed a bill allowing Michigan statehood provided it ceded the Toledo Strip. In return, it got the western three-quarters of what is today’s Upper Peninsula (the U.P.’s eastern portion was already within the Michigan boundary). However, this remote wilderness of Native Americans and trappers was considered a poor exchange, and at first Michigan rejected the offer.

Then the Michiganders practiced realpolitik as well: The U.S. Treasury had a $400,000 surplus (think $10.8 million), soon to be distributed among States, but not Territories. The Toledo War unofficially ended through what become known as the Frostbitten Convention, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on a particularly frigid December 14, 1836. Delegates approved Congress’s statehood offer, though the convention’s legitimacy was questioned and controversies continued.

It wasn’t until 1973 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Michigan v. Ohio that the actual border wasn’t a straight east-west line, but rather one that angles to the northeast (as described in the Ohio state constitution).


The Toledo War (An Operatic Parlor Piece), libretto by Edward Eager, music by David Brookman, performed by the CBS Radio Workshop, 1956.

It was on January 26, 1837, that Michigan was officially admitted into the Union as the 26th state. It no longer had the Toledo Strip, but its first State Governor was Stevens T. Mason. He was 25 at the time. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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